A Mind-Bending Evening of Beckett
by Marilyn Lester
It can be argued that Irish-born, Parisian-dwelling playwright Samuel Beckett is nothing if not consistently mind-bending. In A Mind-Bending Evening of Beckett at The Irish Repertory Theatre, three of Beckett’s post-modern, minimalist, avant-garde works have been selected to showcase the great man’s vision of the human condition.
The first piece, “Act Without Words,” was originally written in 1956 as a solo turn for a (human) mime. In this presentation, Director/Puppet Designer Bob Flanagan, imagines the character as a marionette, playfully dubbed “Erskine T. Birch.” Erskine is chiefly manipulated by puppeteer Rebecca Leigh Silverman, with help from fellow cast mates Rachel Pickup, Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris and Paul Radki.
The action takes place in a desert landscape with illumination – in Beckett’s stage direction, “from a dazzling light.” Finding himself “flung backwards” onto the stage, Erskine rights himself, hears a whistle and moves to respond to it. He’s flung back again and the scene repeats. He looks at his hands, seeing no way to exit. Over the course of the play, the same whistle announces the entrance of several props – a tree, scissors, three cubes of varying sizes, and a carafe of water which is always out of reach, although Erskine valiantly attempts to get at it.
“Act Without Words,” in typical Beckett style, is many-layered and meant to evoke many similar layers of audience reaction, particularly that of coping with frustration. Like poor Tantalus of classical myth, Erskine just can’t win. At play’s end, he simply sits down and studies his hands. There is nothing more to do.
But while the notion of substituting a puppet for a human mime seems initially engaging, and while the puppeteer(s) deftly handle little Erskine, the end result is a distraction from the intent of Beckett’s parable of human nature. We’re unavoidably aware that the character is not alone, and this undercuts the intent of the playwright to show how Erskine’s solitary existence in the desert, affected by offstage influences he can’t control, informs his behavior.
“Breath,” written in1969, was premiered in Broadway’s “Oh! Calcutta!” At a mere 25 seconds long, the curtain rises to a field of scattered rubbish. In this production the sounds are of a baby crying, although Beckett specified “an instant of recorded vagitus,” followed by amplified inhalation and exhalation with an increase and decrease in the intensity of the light, and with a second identical cry and blackout.” The effectiveness of “Breath” was somewhat diminished with the choice to veer from the Beckett sound design. A confusing short scene prior to “Breath,” in which the cast, in their stage blacks, briefly manipulate the placement of black cubes further distracts from the full impact “Breath” could have imparted.
In 1963’s “Play,” the last piece of A Mind-Bending Evening of Becket, the curtain rises on three large, identical grey funeral urns, containing the characters Woman 1, Man, and Woman 2. Their faces are made up “to seem almost part of the urns.” A spotlight continually moves to find each talking head; the characters speak in turns in a rapid-fire staccato that Becket specified should sound like a lawnmower.
The dialog is sometimes unintelligible, sometimes in fragments, but adds up to the telling of an affair, a triangle, among the three. Each presents his/her own version of the truth until the dialog suddenly stops. Pickup as Woman 1, Luqmaan-Harris as Woman 2 and Radki as Man have deftly mastered the demanding course the playwright has set before them. Their ability to unflinchingly tackle “Play” is a mind-bending feat in and of itself.
In sum, A Mind-Bending Evening of Beckett, will not disappoint fans of the playwright, or those willing to explore the territory of the human condition as seen through the lens of the absurd. The intimate setting of The Irish Repertory Theatre’s second stage, the W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre, is the perfect choice for an up-close and personal view of Beckett’s interpretations of the meaning of life.
Direction is by Bob Flanagan, founder of Den Design Studio, a puppet, prop and special effects studio, and Erskine’s creator. The cast features Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris, Rachel Pickup, and Paul Radki and puppeteer Rebecca Leigh-Silverman. Set design is by N. Joseph DeTullio, lighting design by Michael Gottlieb, prop design by Jamie Bressler, costumes/hair/makeup by Andrea Lauer, and music and sound design by Ryan Rumery. The Production Stage Manager is Elis C. Arroyo.
A Mind-Bending Evening of Beckett (75 minutes with one ten-minute intermission) runs through December 1st in The Irish Repertory Theatre’s W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre (132 West 22nd Street). www.IrishRep.org